Everyday geoengineering: five climate change innovations from Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future
From the stabilisation of Antarctica’s sliding glaciers, the mass adoption of regenerative agriculture, to a new age of solar-powered sail and the return of the airship, Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest climate fiction previews the technologies we may — before too much longer — be using in the real world.
Science fiction seems to tend to dystopia. Post-apocalyptic wastelands, rain-soaked megacities, and slave colonies on distant moons offer compelling aesthetics and opportunities for good stories. But the genre has a utopian counter-tradition, less interested in the technological sublime than in how science can be used to make a better world.
Kim Stanley Robinson is science fiction’s most eminent contemporary utopian, returning with each novel to the question of how technology can serve the collective good. His hope is modest: the possibility that we can use science to allow the finite resources of the Earth — and in some of his novels the Solar System — to support the material conditions necessary for the flourishing of a race of billions of humans.
For Robinson the scientific outlook itself can serve as a model for how society might organise itself. His heroes are usually unglamorous, everyday scientists or administrators, finding out what works and what doesn’t through trial and error, sharing what they’ve found out with their peers, patiently accumulating knowledge useful for the greater good.
Robert Markley, author of a fine study of Robinson’s work, notes that ‘Run-of-the-mill sci-fi writers describe gadgets. Robinson asks us to think about the assembly, consequences, and collective labor that give technology its transformative power, then gives us ways to imagine what these changes will mean for individuals and future potential societies.’
Robinson’s best known work, the Mars trilogy, gives a community of scientists, the first settlers on the red planet, free reign to design not just the infrastructure that will sustain life there — its cities, transportation networks, and mines — but also its political and economic structures.
The result isn’t anything like our received idea of a utopia. Robinson’s Mars is riven by fierce disagreements, the most acute over the fundamental question of whether the planet should be terraformed. But a society emerges in the harshest possible alien environment that secures modest material comfort for all, organised according to a cooperative economic model that avoids capitalism’s vertiginous inequalities. A more recent novel, 2312, extends the canvas to the whole of the Solar System, telling how hundreds of ordered, sustainable communities establish themselves on Mercury, Mars and the Saturnian and Jovian moons.
A persistent theme in Robinson’s work is the capacity of science to correct its own temptation to overreach itself. In Aurora the voyagers on an intergenerational starship travelling beyond our Solar System to a neighbouring star system find their hopes were doomed from the start: the very laws of physics impose fundamental constraints on our ability to move much beyond our immediate neighbourhood in the galaxy.
Robinson’s new novel, The Ministry for the Future, focuses his concern with the transformative possibilities of technology on the urgent question of how we can use science to meet the challenge of climate change. The book scarcely qualifies as science fiction at all, the story beginning not the far future or on some distant world, but here on Earth, only five years from now.
The Ministry that gives the book its title is a UN agency established to help enforce the Paris Agreement and other international climate accords. It has the usual powers — no more and no less — granted to international institutions: some capacity to finance initiatives, and to exert moral pressure on governments and banks, but no hard powers to enforce.
But the Ministry’s team, a close knit group of politicians, bureaucrats, diplomats, economists, engineers and scientists, emerge as the rather ordinary heroes of the novel. Through persistence and pragmatism, occasionally illuminated by shafts of inspiration, they find a way of unravelling the various knots of the climate crisis; fast-forwarding the energy transition away from fossil fuels, encouraging the development of green modes of transport, stimulating the mass adoption of sustainable agriculture, redesigning the financial system to direct capital towards green energy, and finding patchwork solutions for vexing environmental crises caused by rising temperatures.
Somehow, by the end of the novel, it seems that they — and humanity — are getting somewhere. The Ministry of the Future is fiction, but in the course of more than a hundred chapters running to nearly six hundred pages, it discusses a host of climate change techniques technologies and policies that we may, before too much longer, find ourselves using in the real world.
Some are elegant, rather more are hacks, improvised as the situation demands. But the important thing is that they work. Here are five.
1. Solar engineering
The book opens with a gruesome description of an Indian heatwave in the summer of 2025 that kills 20 million people in a week.
‘Wet bulb’ temperatures of more than 35C, a deadly blend of heat and humidity that shuts off the human body’s capacity to cool itself, induces hyperthermia in shade as well as sunlight. The story is not just designed as the novel’s scene setter, but intended as a warning to us: wet-bulb temperatures of up to 34C have already been recorded several times in the past few years.
A shocked India begins a radical climate change mitigation programme, the first and most controversial element of which is a project to to suffuse the country’s skies with a delicate sheen of sulphur dioxide particulates able to reflect sunlight back into space. The aim is to manufacture something like the natural blanketing effect of major volcanic eruptions, in particular that of the Philippines’ Mount Piatubo in 1991, when the ash cloud released by the explosion created a thin layer of sulphur in the stratosphere that lowered global temperatures by a degree for a year or two.
The project is carried out in defiance of strict UN protocols against such solar engineering, the effects of which will inevitably spread through the world’s atmosphere with unknown consequences. India presses ahead regardless, the head of the country’s delegation to the Paris Agreement angrily telling UN representatives ‘that we are scared here, and angry too. It was Europe and America and China who caused this heat wave, not us. I know we have burned a lot of coal in the last few decades, but it’s nothing compared to the West. And yet we signed the Agreement to do our part. Which we have done. But no one else is fulfilling commitments, no one is paying the developing nations, and now we have this heat wave.’
Like many of the geoengineering projects described in The Ministry for the Future the programme proceeds with basic, indeed ramshackle, technology. The mission is carried out with an old fleet of some two hundred Soviet-era IIyushin IL-78s jets, which run a constant relay of several thousand missions over a few months pumping particulates sixty thousand feet up in the upper atmosphere through their fuel lines. Most of the missions begin over the Arabian Sea, to allow the prevailing winds to ensure the particles are carried over India first. But it is only a matter of time before they circulate through the world’s stratosphere.
It’s a desperate, improvised mission, but it works. Enough sulphur is released to deflect about a fifth of one percent of incoming sunlight, enough to lower temperatures in India by two degrees and prevent an immediate recurrence of the heatwave. Global temperatures drop too, but with no discernible ill effect.
The episode is perhaps Robinson’s boldest defence in fiction of his controversial but often stated view that risky climate change mitigation may be better than doing nothing at all.
2. Harnessing the power of the Sun
After the tentative success of its experiment with solar engineering, Robinson’s India goes on to become ‘a fully recycling solar powerhouse’, working to turn its abundance of sunlight — India gets more than any other nation — to its advantage.
The country’s coal-fired energy plants are decommissioned and replaced with vast solar fields. As well as feeding into the Indian grid, solar power can also draw water out of the air and then hydrogen out of the water to create biofuels. And full advantage is taken of India’s uniquely rich soil through the mass adoption of regenerative agriculture techniques modelled after the pioneering processes undertaken today in the northeastern state of Sikkim. India’s farmland is cultivated through organic techniques that radically reduce the use of chemicals, revitalising the soil’s natural capacity to soak up and sequester carbon.
During a field trip Ministry observers are struck by the land’s fecundity: ‘Green. Hills to east, also green. Terraces on slopes, but much land flat. Green of several shades, but also rectangles of yellow, orange, red, purple, dark brown, even pale blue. Flowers of spice crops apparently. Everything grows here … Best soil and climate on Earth. Now banking seven parts per thousand of carbon per year, immense drawdown.’ Land is set aside purely for the use of animals, ‘habitat corridors’ that allow threatened species like the tiger to flourish.
This return to seemingly rustic techniques is enhanced through discreet use of technology developed by India’s celebrated tech sector: farming patterns are mapped through digital modelling and wildlife is tagged and traced to create an ‘internet of animals’. If China was the leading nation in Robinson’s last book Red Moon, India is the star here. One of the book’s unnamed narrators — perhaps Robinson himself — comments:
What is this? A sixth of humanity on one big triangular patch of land, caught under the blazing sun, cut off by a mighty range of mountains: who are these people? A democracy, a polyglot coalition — wait, can it be? And what can it be? Do we make the Chinese, who so decisively stepped onto the world stage at the start of this century, look dictatorial, monolithic, brittle, afraid? Is India now the bold new leader of the world? We think maybe so.
3. Stabilising sea levels
Far from the heat of India, others take on one of the most intimidating climate change challenges: stabilising the relentless erosion of the Arctic and Antarctic ice layers.
The loss of either would be devastating. The albedo effect of the thin layer of ice that covers the North Pole plays a critical role in stabilising global temperatures by reflecting sunlight back into space. But it is rapidly eroding, the winter layer now only a metre or so thick. In Antarctica many glaciers are sliding into the sea ten times faster than just a few decades ago, threatening a catastrophic rise in sea levels. If they rise by even a metre all the beaches in the world and many of its salt marshes, seaports and coastal infrastructures will be overwhelmed. But Robinson’s engineers find makeshift solutions that are inelegant, costly, exhausting, but ultimately effective.
The loss of the Arctic ice is tackled for through the simple expedient of colouring the North Pole waters with yellow dye, some of it derived from petroleum by-products, some from oak and mulberry bark. It looks ugly, and requires continual renewal by ships, drones and low-flying planes spraying dye across miles and miles of sea, but it’s effective, the dye supercharging the waters’ reflective capacity, compensating as best as possible for the irreversible loss of ice cover.
Arresting the erosion of Antarctica’s glaciers proves harder. Robinson dismisses the most frequently suggested solution: the pumping of water back onto the Antarctica mainland as glaciers melt. Logical as it sounds it is simply impractical: to make up for glacial erosion causing a rise in sea levels of just one centimetre it would be necessary to pump back three thousand six hundred cubic kilometres of water. As one of Robinson’s scientists observes that would be ‘six hundred times as much as all the oil pumped every year. … That much energy would take ten million windmills … And the water would have to be moved in pipes, and that’s more pipe than has ever been made.’
The solution described in the book goes to the root cause of the problem: the accumulation of water below the glaciers due to meltwater running down cracks in the continent’s ice. The trapped water lubricates and lifts the glaciers, detaching them from the bedrock that once fixed them in place.
So Robinson’s scientists get to work pumping the water out beneath them to force them to resettle on the ocean floor. It’s a herculean task requiring the pumping of thirty cubic kilometres of water, the equivalent of ‘a clear cube of ice about four kilometres on a side and the same high, so half as tall as Everest’. But it can be done using established technologies, like the ice coring systems long used by researchers to gain ice samples or drill down to subglacial lakes, and the drilling techniques familiar to oil companies.
A system is hacked together using the drilling systems to hand, powered somewhat bizarrely by Russian communications satellites that send power down to be picked up microwave collection stations that power pumps and heaters. It’s clumsy, but it’s enough, for now. Flying over Antarctica, observers describe ‘Snow or ice as far as they could see. Then a cluster of black dots. Around the dots black threads, like a broken spider web. These dots and lines held civilisation suspended over the abyss.’
4. A new age of sail
Some of the book’s most beautiful passages chart the transition away from diesel powered ships and planes to new models that recall and update earlier modes of travel: ships propelled by sails able to harness sunlight as well as the wind, and a new generation of airships.
The first nautical innovations are modest, as older ships are refitted to run on electric motors powered by giant roofs of solar panels. They are superseded by a 21st century class of clipper ships with sails made of photovoltaic fabrics able to capture both wind and light, generating electricity that turns propellers. With each of their six masts supporting a big square sail with a triangular sail above, they look rather like Victorian schooners. When they achieve momentum hydrofoils deploy from their sides, lifting them out of the water, and kites tethered to the bow are released, allowing the ships to touch speeds of more than a hundred kilometres an hour as they catch the wind along the old trade routes.
During a voyage the Ministry’s president has time to admire the ‘blue plate of the ocean. Sea and sky, clouds. Pink at dawn, orange at sunset. Winds pushing and pulling them, the sun, the waves. The glorious glide, crest to trough, trough to crest, long rollers of mid-ocean. … She recalled her last flight from London to San Francisco, passing over Greenland at midday, no clouds below them, the great ice expanse as alien as Callisto or Titan, and everyone with their window shades pulled down so they could watch their movies.
There’s a revolution in the skies as well. Battery-powered electric planes replace the old fuel powered models, and airships become the most common mode of air travel, finally emerging from the shadows into which they were cast a hundred years ago with the arrival of the jet age. Robinson imagines skies populated by ‘Giant robot freighters, circular sky villages under rings of balloons, actual clippers of the clouds sporting sails or pulled by kites, hot-air balloons in their usual rainbow array. … they were still in the Cambrian explosion moment of airship design.’
One long chapter describes a Jules Verne-inspired airship journey from San Francisco up over the Arctic, down across Europe to Africa down to Antarctica, the ship taking off from a pad on the side of California’s Mount Tamalpais. Take off ‘felt strange, lofting up over the bay, bouncing a little on the wind, not like a jet, not like a helicopter. Strange but interesting. Dynamic lift; the electric motors, on sidecars up the sides of the bag, could get them to about two hundred kilometres an hour over the land, depending on the winds.’
The living quarters are located in an a keel-like gallery that extends across the length of the airship. Passengers can enjoy a viewing chamber at the bow and the top of the ship, both clear-walled and floored fitted with spotting scopes allowing dramatic views of the world below and the stars above the ‘Milky Way low in the west, Orion climbing up over the eastern horizon, all of this very far from cities, and at five thousand feet, it was simply amazing how many stars they could see.’
5. The carbon coin: a new green currency
One of the book’s most important innovations is not a technology but a financial initiative. Few novels concern themselves with the intricacies of quantitative easing, but a central storyline follows the Ministry’s long struggle to convince the world’s central banks to rewire the global financial system to direct capital away from fossil fuels.
After ceaseless lobbying, and several shocks to global markets triggered by successive climate crises, the bankers relent and introduce a new digital currency, a carbon coin disbursed to companies and governments on proof that they are shifting their production away from hydrocarbons.
Coins are awarded for every tonne of carbon not burned or sequestered, and backed by hundred-year bonds with guaranteed rates of return underwritten by all the central banks, and supplemented by a carbon monitoring and certification industry that works much like today’s bond rating agencies.
Robinson succeeds in investing meetings of central bank representatives with due drama. At a critical gathering in a waterside conference room in Zurich ‘the broad picture windows spanning the south wall of the big room provided them with the pathetic fallacy in full measure: a spring storm lashed the Zurichsee, with the low shifting gray clouds dropping black blooms of rain onto the silvery lake surface, the windows running wild with deltas of rainwater kaleidoscoping this view.’
And the currency takes off. By making applications for the coin to the ‘Climate Coalition of Central Banks’ oil companies and petrostates get the financial incentive they need to wean themselves off hydrocarbons, receiving compensation in proportion to their stranded assets.
When a power struggle in Saudi Arabia leads to the fall of House of Saud, the new Arabian government commits to move away from oil to solar, and makes an immediate claim for a trillion carbon coins worth several trillion US dollars to fund the transition, a claim granted on condition that the payments are scheduled according to how fast the Arabian oil would have been produced and burned. Brazil soon follows, pledging to end its own oil sales and to protect the Amazon rainforest.
For Robinson, introducing a carbon tax isn’t enough. A carrot — like the carbon coin — is needed as well as the stick. And this proves the psychological key that finally encourages investors to ‘go long on civilisation’.
Through these and many other projects progress is made: carbon buildup is stabilised; the immediate fear of a big rise in sea levels is averted; the decisive shift is made from hydrocarbons to renewable forms of energy.
But, as ever with Robinson, the final picture is cloudy. Climate change isn’t fixed. The world has been permanently scarred by decades of carbon emissions and other forms of pollution whose effects will be with us for centuries to come. The expensive, wearisome work of managing the erosion of the polar regions must continue for the foreseeable future: Antarctic water must continue to be pumped, the Arctic seas must continue to be dyed. Fleets of planes with their loads of sulphur dioxide standby as each summer brings the possibility of new devastating heatwaves. Irreversible damage done to large swathes of the biosphere — ocean acidification, the warming of Siberia, the desertification of swathes of Africa and Asia — can only be managed as best as it can.
And through the novel the Ministry’s work is complemented by darker uses of technology. A clandestine network of ‘eco-terrorists’ uses sabotage and violence as leverage: boats fishing in illegal — and sometimes legal — waters are hijacked; livestock are infected with BSE and other diseases to prise the world away from its addiction to carbon-intensive meat production; drones sink diesel-powered container ships, blow planes out of the sky, and assassinate oil executives and the heads of polluting governments.
But the network doesn’t claim responsibility for everything. The possibility is left open that many acts are organised by the Ministry itself, a ‘black wing’ complementing its public efforts. Gerry Canavan notes that ‘What passes for hope here is thus a very particular, very narrow trail somewhere between reform, revolution, and revenge. More than its grimness, what is most new about The Ministry for the Future for Robinson is how truly dangerous it is as a novel, how it opens the door on questions we sensible people have mostly agreed not to ask.’
But the book hopes we may not have to go down that route. We have all the technology and ingenuity we need to act decisively, if we can summon the will. Robinson wants to drag us away from the lure of dystopia, to try to envision something harder: the possibility of a workable utopia that can be something more than science fiction, a world whose ample but finite resources are used wisely for the good of all.
The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson is published by Orbit.